Construction is happening everywhere in Sochi as the city gets ready to host the rapidly-approaching Winter Olympic Games, but it’s coming at a hidden cost. While the Russian government has pledged that this will be a green, zero-waste Games, the truth is much more complicated: it turns out that organizing an event on the scale of the Olympics is a lot of work, and it’s not always possible to live up to all promises. Environmentalists have accused contractors of pollution and other environmental sins, while some communities in Sochi are complaining about the disruption caused by the Olympics.
And they’re not talking about the loud noises of construction, the rumble of trucks in the street, or even the happy cries of skiers as they test out the slopes. Instead, they’re discussing a more serious problem: their houses are falling down because of the Olympics.
Here’s what’s happening: as construction firms dig out sites to build stadiums, athlete housing, hotels and other facilities, they’re dumping the dirt around Sochi. That, in turn, is affecting groundwater flow patterns, which is creating man-made erosion. In one community along Baku Street, houses are starting to lean over as their street is quite simply sliding slowly down a hill. One building actually fell down, taking a smaller neighboring structure out along the way.
Residents are angry both with the damage to their homes, and with the way it’s being handled. Many don’t have a great deal of money, relying on basic working class jobs to make a living, and some are heavily indebted with multiple loans they used to purchase or renovate their homes. They can’t afford to shore up their homes or repair the damage, an action that would likely be futile given that the environmental problems are going to continue until the larger dumping and excavation issues are resolved.
As the city undergoes a renaissance down below, with new construction to create a dazzling showcase of Russian arts, culture and sport, residents clinging to the hill above are watching their homes slip away. Despite advocacy work in an attempt to address the issue with the government, they haven’t been able to obtain a response, let alone action on the problem. Some environmental activists claim they’ve been threatened or pressured to remain silent about the problems they see in Sochi, including the leaning houses of Baku Street.
Lest you think this is a problem specific to Russia and Sochi, it’s actually not. Host cities for the Olympic Games have a history of displacing existing residents. In both Rio and Beijing, for example, sustained campaigns on poorer communities in the cities were used to drive people out and away in the hopes of presenting a more tidy, attractive Olympic venue, both in the ramp-up to the Olympic bid and during the preparation for the Games themselves. These aren’t the only cities who have cared more about the Olympics than their own populations.
Can Sochi make history for itself and host the Olympics without forgetting who was there first?
Photo credit: Stefan Krasowski